(First published in The University of Winchester Writers’ Festival – The Best of 2016)
Writer’s Note: I wrote this essay just after I completed my treatment for breast cancer in 2015. I wanted to record that initial experience of what it felt like to be told that I had cancer, and how I have to tell my children, three and seven years old at the time. All I wanted was for them to have something to read which came straight from me, if I did not survive. But I wanted it to be a little humorous and tell it like it was – there were lots of tears but there were also lighter moments, and I wanted to capture that for them.
The style of the essay is inspired from the many essays I read in the Best American Essay series, with headlines for each section. This was a new structure for me, and I thought it would work well for the themes in my essay. Later, I submitted it to the WInchester Writers Festival Memoir Prize, and it won the first prize. This was life-changing in many ways, just as my cancer was. This essay gave me new opportunities for which I am very grateful.
The last day of school. The mums stand around in knots, discussing camping, the weather, the holidays. I am with a few who are discussing the Big Forty. Yes, quite a few of us this year are turning forty. Which means we need to do something special. One suggests jumping out of a plane. Sky diving. The Dartmoor Challenge. Something to remember for the rest of our lives.
I stand there, wondering what I should do. A small party perhaps. Nothing outrageous. I have no idea that I too will do something very big, very very big for my fortieth.
The Unhappy Breast
It’s been a while that I’ve noticed something different about my left breast. The first time was when I finished breastfeeding my firstborn in 2007, my breast shrivelled up. I used to joke about it, how it puckered like a prune while the other one looked so cheerful. Breastfeeding changes the body, I was told. Slowly, she came around and stopped looking so sad. She geared up for the second round of breastfeeding. I found it odd that both of my babies never really took to the left side, always preferring the right one, leaving the left angry and envious once again. But this time she didn’t sulk in a corner. She decided to internalise, and soon there began changes within that weren’t apparent to plain sight.
Fast forward to 2014, and I am busy, so busy I don’t notice anything unusual. There’s the children to look after, the novel to finish for publication, summer school teaching and usual arguments with husband. But in the midst of all this, I notice my left breast has gone into a sulk again. Not a sulk, she’s quite upset. The nipple appears darker, sunken and puckered. There are no lumps. No matter how I poke and prod, I don’t feel anything. And yet, I feel her unease. I feel her anger.
So one morning, on my way to work, I call up my GP. Of course I know I won’t get through. They are always so busy, and my class begins at nine. I give up and go to class. My Chinese students are discussing Scotland and cutting up cardboard boxes to build the Edinburgh Castle. We also talk about society, marriage and homosexuality. They are keen to give their opinions and viewpoints. Marriage is very good, the other not. We eat lunch at the cafeteria. Chicken curry and rice. Naan and salad. Brownie. I eat up quickly so I can get my bus back home.
My bus is late. As I wait around, there is an urge from inside. Something inside is telling me to call the surgery again. I resist. I feel fine. The curry has made me feel warm and satisfied. The bus isn’t here still. So I make the call.
Within a couple of hours, I am at the surgery. The GP says she can’t feel any lump. There’s nothing untoward, but yes, I am right in saying this breast looks a bit different. It’s completely normal to have this differences. Breasts change with age. With motherhood. But she still refers me to the hospital. Just to make sure. Just to cross out any probabilities. Armed with the referral, I return home.
Abnormalities of the breast are looked into very quickly by the NHS. On my way home that very afternoon, I am offered an appointment at the hospital ten days later. It’s on a Friday morning. Damn, I think. I’m going to have to miss class. I’m also going to have to miss the full English breakfast provided on Fridays for the teachers and students of the summer school.
My husband will be away on an important conference the week of the scan. I don’t tell him what’s happening. My mother is here for the summer. I don’t tell her either.
The 15th of August. Such an irony that on India’s 67th Independence Day I am told such news that will take away my own independence for a while. Or for life. I’m not sure yet.
I make my way to the hospital on Friday morning. It’s a beautiful summer’s morning. The sun is shining. The sky is clear, and people are happy and smiling on the bus. I feel that’s a bit odd as it’s the bus that goes to Asda and to the hospital. Soon I am there. I dodge past the smokers who stand ceremoniously by the ‘This is a smoke free site’ and enter into the bowels of Derriford Hospital. I admire the knitted patchwork quilt on display in the charity shop on the way to the lifts. The cafe smells good and reminds me again of the full English I have missed.
I have to go to the Primrose Breast Care Unit. I like that name. It sounds delicate. It also sounds sturdy, a place for survival. I know this from the abundance of primroses that grow through the cracks of paving at the front of my house. They survive in spite of my vicious attacks on them. It feels good to know this.
But still, I don’t feel anxiety. This is a routine test. I will come out feeling relieved. I will go on with the rest of my life. I even contemplate lunch with the students if I finish the examination early. The room is very busy this morning. Women of all ages sit around the comfy orange and green chairs. There are lots of magazines strewn across the various tables. Mostly women’s. I wonder how a man will feel if he has to come in for a check up. There is a man who’s come in. He looks worried, and he doesn’t have a magazine to disappear into. There is a lot of chatter, coming in and going out. Names being called. Some take longer to come out. Some come out looking like they’ve let out a deep, long breath and now rushing to catch up with their morning. Some come out in tears.
I wait. I want this over and done with. I flick through Good Housekeeping and remind myself to get lots of colourful cushions for the settee. They make a house a home, I’m told. My name is called. I always know when my name will be called because the person always comes out with a file, looks at it and hesitates. They probably say it once in their mind, by which time I know it’s me. By the time they stammer out a ‘Mrs B-Bh-’ I’m up and walking towards them. I feel sorry to give them such a hard time. My name is not easy to say even after a few drinks.
I’m seen by a breast surgeon. He examines me quickly and deftly. He marks a few circles near the nipple and says I need to go back and wait for the mammogram and ultrasound scan. I ask the nurse if there’s a long waiting period. She says yes, perhaps a couple of hours wait. While I settle back in my orange chair, the only man comes back out. He smiles at his partner and says it’s all clear. I feel happy for him.
Within twenty minutes I’ve had a mammogram and am ushered in for a scan. The ultrasound technician makes me comfortable and smothers cold gel on my chest. She peers into the screen and says there are no lumps. I exhale. But wait, can you see the little speckles all over the breast tissue? I look. Yes, there are tiny spots all over. It’s called calcification. It’s an indication of cancer or pre-cancerous tissues. She does a biopsy. Suddenly, everything’s changed. The C word has entered the vocabulary. I’m not enjoying this conversation anymore.
What do I tell at home? I ask. What should I tell my husband? He’s away and I don’t want to freak him out. Tell him the truth, the technician tells me. It’s serious enough. But yet, we are not sure until the results. She leaves the room, and the nurse attending cleans me up. A little white lie won’t help, she smiles. There’s no need to tell him everything now. He can’t do anything about it. I feel better. Yes, it won’t help anyway.
I wander back to the cheerful waiting room and hide inside a magazine. My eyes roll back into the head for a split second and I find myself trembling uncontrollably. This is unreal. This isn’t really happening to me. But it is. I square my shoulders and walk out the door. I don’t need to panic yet. The results are not out. It could just be pre-cancerous and that can be taken care of. I make my way to the exit. I meet the mammogram technician on the way out. She’s finished her shift probably. She walks beside me, and I can see she wants to hold my arm. Or pat my back. But she doesn’t. She tells me instead to sit down and have a cup of tea in the cafe. It’ll do me good. I nod and say goodbye to her. But I don’t stop for a drink. I just want to go home.
Too much chocolate is a good thing
The days pass in a whirl. The university course is keeping me occupied. I don’t think much about my condition. I haven’t even cried since the time at the hospital when the nurse asked me how old my children are. When I said three and seven, she replied ‘oh, then we must take care of you and make you better.’ That’s when I cried, briefly.
We had planned a holiday with the family once my husband was back from India. The London museums. Cadbury World. The surgeon arranges to meet us the day we return with the results.
It’s a good holiday. We do the Natural History Museum. Science Museum and a bit of the V&A. Not one to pose for pictures, I find myself taking a lot of photos with the girls, selfies even. I think I’m trying to keep images for the girls to look at later. Maybe I’m preserving pictures of myself when I am whole. I may not be very soon.
At the science museum, M drags me to the exhibit of the human baby and says in her usual loud voice, ‘mummy, that’s me in your tummy. When I was being born, I was peeping through your belly button and saw Baba. Then I popped out and flew straight out to him.’ Everyone smiles. I tell her to talk softly. They are fascinated by the container full of human blood. The dinosaurs are a bit of an anti-climax. The children don’t care about the bones. They like the ‘real’ one roaring and stomping at the end of the room.
London is great because there is such a huge choice of Indian food. After the educational and cultural hunger is satisfied, we rush to Southall to satiate the needs of the stomach. Cadbury World is a chocolate lover’s delight. We gorge on so much chocolate that for that day we are oblivious of everything else in this world. We have to return to the hospital tomorrow. I suck on the spoon full of warm, melted chocolate. Life is so good today.
So we meet the surgeon and she’s got the results and I’m afraid it isn’t good. The tumour is definitely cancerous and because of the large size, a mastectomy is the way forward. Lots of technical terms fly about. I cannot make sense of anything. Grade 2 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. I feel better it has a name. I wonder how I never got a feel of its present beneath my skin? Sitting there quietly all this time, playing a waiting game with me.
There is a date free on the 4th of September. I am offered it for the surgery. We say yes immediately. Just three days before my 40th birthday. At first, I am devastated. But then I think, what a lovely birthday present. A cancer free body for my 40th. I think I am good at psyching myself, and I feel proud of myself.
There’s lots of phone calls and discussion at home. My 7-year-old can feel something is going on. We haven’t told the children anything yet. What do we tell them? I cry at the thought of breaking the news to them.
Ro is tearful and being difficult. I know it is playing on her mind. So my hubby gets the book Mummy’s Lump and we sit down to tell the children a story. It’s a family story telling session, with my children, my mother, my husband and me sitting together, eagerly listening to the story as I read it out.
The story is about a lump that grows in Mummy’s breast, and she needs to have it taken out. I tell them one of my breasts will be removed in a surgery in a few days time. M asks, you mean, they’ll cut it off and it can run away on its own?
Yes, it will be removed but it cannot run off.
Then who will take your tete? She asks, cuddling up to me. She squeezes it reassuringly.
Ro says, The tete man.
That’s a good idea. The tete man will take it away, and keep it safe.
Then there’s the one about chemotherapy and losing the hair.
Will you wear a wig?
Yes, I might.
What colour would you suggest?
Mummy, I want you to wear a different colour on every day of the week. Rainbow colours. (By now you should know whose suggestion this is!)
We are all laughing and imagining me in funny wigs.
But that night, as I tuck them into bed, Ro has a question that she can’t ask.
Mummy, are you going to -? Are you going to-?
I look into her eyes. No, sweetheart. I’m not going to die. I’m going to be alright. I see the relief wash through her body. She closes her eyes and goes to sleep.
On the 4th of September 2014, I leave my children with my mum and go to the hospital with my husband. I am prepared for the worst.
When I wake up, I am aware I’m missing a part of my body. I have a drain attached to the vacant space where my breast had been. I should feel upset, but I am glad it’s gone. The cancer has been removed. I have a window before the chemotherapy will begin. I have some time before this cancer treatment hits me like a truck and changes my life forever. I take a moment to think of my fortieth birthday in three days time. I am grateful that I have reached this milestone with something to show for. I am ready for the rest to unfold.
Susmita Bhattacharya’s debut novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian, 2015) was long-listed at the Mumbai Film Festival, 2018. Her short story collection, Table Manners (Dahlia Publishing, 2018) won the Saboteur Award for Best Short Story Collection (2019). She teaches creative writing at Winchester University and in the community.